In a recent Washington Post piece, columnist Max Boot wrote about the effects of religion on economic, physical and social well-being, drawing on data from a global survey and comparing the most religious and least religious countries. He concluded, “There is little evidence that a decline in religiosity leads to a decline in society — or that high levels of religiosity strengthen society. ... If anything, the evidence suggests that too much religion is bad for a country.”

The idea that religion is bad for society is an article of faith of New Atheism, an ideology that Stephen Prothero, in his book, “God is Not One” calls a secular religion. In his book, “Seculosity,” David Zahl demonstrates that many Americans are not so much abandoning religion as replacing their involvement in faith communities with religious devotion to various secular pursuits, such as career, parenting, technology, food, politics and romance. It seems that human beings will be religious in one way or another. Thus, the question really is, will they devote their time, talent and treasure in ways that help or harm others?

Boot rightly noted that America is unusual in that it is both highly religious and does well in most of the areas he addressed. For example, a Pew Research Center study reported that, compared with Americans who are “inactively religious” (identify with a religion but don’t practice) and religiously unaffiliated (“nones”), “actively religious” people (who attend religious services at least monthly) are happier, healthier, more likely to join charitable organizations and to vote.

Contrary to Boot’s conclusion, there is ample evidence of a number of important societal benefits from religious devotion that he overlooked. In a response to Boot’s piece published in Juicy Ecumenism, Mark Tooley effectively addressed a number of Boot’s arguments by pointing out that there is significant evidence that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has made life better for many throughout the world and throughout history. Studies show that religious people are more likely than non-religious to give to charities, including secular ones. Religious institutions provide substantial charitable assistance. For example, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with only about 16 million members, donates close to $1 billion annually to humanitarian and welfare aid causes throughout the world.

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Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, in his book “America’s Blessings” provides a great deal of evidence that religion provides benefits for “everyone, including atheists” because greater religiosity has been repeatedly associated with lower crime, higher levels of prosocial behavior, greater levels of mental and physical health, more generosity and higher levels of achievement, including education, among U.S. samples.

While there certainly is value in considering global, pan-historical trends, it is difficult to draw valid and nuanced conclusions from such data on contemporary problems and challenges in a brief newspaper article. Will and Ariel Durant wrote an 11-volume history of civilization that approaches 10,000 pages. All we can do is to address those parts of American religious life that we have spent two decades and more than 100 published studies exploring in great detail: the influence of spiritual beliefs, religious practices and faith communities on well-being in personal, marital and family life.

Our American Families of Faith project has conducted in-depth interviews (average of two hours length) with more than 250 diverse, religious families from 33 states, about half of whom are ethnic minority families, and nearly 20% of whom are first-generation Americans who came of their own choice to this land. The interview transcripts total nearly 10,000 double-spaced pages. The mission of the American Families of Faith project is to engage in rigorous scholarship that thoughtfully explores best practices that can benefit and strengthen couples, families, youth and children.

The award-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written and spoken at length about what she calls “the danger of a single story.” Our work emphasizes two stories — that religion can be both helpful and harmful for American families, depending on how that religion is lived by spouses and parents. Our findings are consistent with the body of research in the social sciences that shows that religion is mostly helpful for most people but that it can also be harmful when applied in ways that are rigid and excessive or that do not honor individual agency.

Throughout history and across faiths and cultures, religion has led to both good and evil — to peace and war, to liberation and slavery, to justice and oppression, to kindness and killing, to love and hate, to charity and greed, to hospitality and terrorism, and to familial joy and familial sorrow. Religion influenced both Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Osama bin Laden; both the Red Cross and the Inquisition; both the healing of the Muslim relief agency Red Crescent and the horror of 9/11; both the peaceful patience of the Rev. Martin Luther King and the violent fanaticism of the Ku Klux Klan. Indeed, William James, a father of American psychology, demonstrated in his opus, “The Varieties of Religious Experience,” that there are both “healthy-minded” and “sick-souled” versions of religion.

Religion may harm

A scholarly treatise on religion at its worst, “Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence,” was offered by a leading Jewish intellectual, rabbi and Templeton prize winner Jonathan Sacks. After delineating historical and contemporary atrocities “justified” by religion, Sacks concluded, “Religion is at its best when it relies on the strength of ... example. It is at its worst when it seeks to impose truth by force.”

Through a social scientific lens, scholars have also pointed out that religion may: (a) divide people between believers and non-believers, saved and damned, “us” and “them”; (b) lead people to experience guilt, repression, and hypocrisy; (c) create gender inequities in marriage, family, and society; (d) enable sexual, emotional, physical and/or financial victimization and abuse of children, elderly and other vulnerable persons, and (e) be subject to being employed as a destructive force or weapon (i.e., the Inquisition, the Pogroms, the Crusades, Jihad, the Holocaust, terrorism). But this is not the whole story.

Religion may help

In terms of healthy and helpful religion, UCLA cancer researcher James Enstrom studied adult members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in California for 14 years and discovered that active members had a life expectancy eight to 11 years longer than U.S. white adults and cancer rates at about half of national average. These benefits were largely attributed to the church’s Word of Wisdom, a code for health forbidding alcohol, tobacco and illegal drug use. However, later research in “Demography” reported that Americans of any faith who attended worship services at least once a week lived an average of 7.6 years longer than nonattenders (the difference was a striking 13.7 years longer for African Americans).

If we move from biological to psychological research among Americans, repeated empirical findings include subjective self-reports of moderately better mental health and social support for the more religiously involved. At the marital and family level, we have summarized many studies indicating that when wives and husbands are both actively involved in the same faith, such marriages have relatively higher rates of marital satisfaction, marital stability (lower divorce) and marital quality. Recent studies also indicate higher sexual satisfaction among religious wives and husbands.

At the level of faith community, a 2020 volume, “Strengths in Diverse Families of Faith” documents that across eight different faith communities, religion can and does reportedly (a) organize people into communities of care that provide material, social, psychological, relational and other benefits; (b) call adherents to look beyond their own faith community to care for “others”; and (c) provide one of the few remaining contexts for meaningful interaction across three to four social generations.

How can the above composites of horrific harms and beneficial blessings be traced to the common source of religious belief and practice? In his book-length study “Sacred Matters: Religion and Spirituality in Families,” Wes Burr concludes, “It is what we do as a result of (our perceptions), ideals, and beliefs about the sacred that determines whether the sacred is helpful or harmful in families.” We concur that the way that beliefs are lived out gives them destructive or creative power.

Ignoring either the creative, unifying force or the destructive, terrifying force of religion leaves us vulnerable to the danger of a single and woefully incomplete story. We are wary of blindly pro-religion rhetoric that fails to account for many historical atrocities where religion was hijacked and employed for evil ends. We are equally disturbed by anti-religion rhetoric that fails to account for decades of empirical studies that generally indicate that there are many goods that correlate with religious involvement at the individual, marital, familial and societal levels. This body of empirical work is even more striking given that many of these studies emanate from the historically irreligious and even anti-religious fields of psychology and sociology. 

A large body of social science research indicates that high levels of healthy religiosity provide many personal and relational benefits that merely nominal levels of religious belief and involvement does not. To settle for the dangerous single story that religion is bad may be at least as unfortunate as the provincial narrative that religion is an unmitigated good. Our carefully measured, double story is that high levels of healthy religion is good for America’s families while what James called “sick-souled” religion is bad for everyone.

Constant legal and political vigilance in protecting and preserving religious liberties is essential for every citizen — religious or not. Additionally, personal and cultural vigilance is needed to protect and preserve the ability of families of strong faith to thrive. While it is crucial to defend religious liberty as a fundamental right, we believe it is equally important to uphold healthy religious devotion as a foundational responsibility that benefits citizens and society.

David C. Dollahite and Loren D. Marks are professors at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life. Their views are their own.